The Fraud: A Novel
Zadie Smith is a literary genius. The last time I stopped to marvel at the beauty of a book’s writing was in the Neapolitan novels. This has the same notes of immersive world building and rich, complex characters. One of my favorite reads of 2023!
The instant New York Times bestseller.
From acclaimed and bestselling novelist Zadie Smith, a kaleidoscopic work of historical fiction set against the legal trial that divided Victorian England, about who gets to tell their story—and who gets to be believed
It is 1873. Mrs. Eliza Touchet is the Scottish housekeeper—and cousin by marriage—of a once-famous novelist, now in decline, William Ainsworth, with whom she has lived for thirty years.
Mrs. Touchet is a woman of many interests: literature, justice, abolitionism, class, her cousin, his wives, this life and the next. But she is also sceptical. She suspects her cousin of having no talent; his successful friend, Mr. Charles Dickens, of being a bully and a moralist; and England of being a land of facades, in which nothing is quite what it seems.
Andrew Bogle, meanwhile, grew up enslaved on the Hope Plantation, Jamaica. He knows every lump of sugar comes at a human cost. That the rich deceive the poor. And that people are more easily manipulated than they realize. When Bogle finds himself in London, star witness in a celebrated case of imposture, he knows his future depends on telling the right story.
The “Tichborne Trial”—wherein a lower-class butcher from Australia claimed he was in fact the rightful heir of a sizable estate and title—captivates Mrs. Touchet and all of England. Is Sir Roger Tichborne really who he says he is? Or is he a fraud? Mrs. Touchet is a woman of the world. Mr. Bogle is no fool. But in a world of hypocrisy and self-deception, deciding what is real proves a complicated task. . . .
Based on real historical events, The Fraud is a dazzling novel about truth and fiction, Jamaica and Britain, fraudulence and authenticity and the mystery of “other people.”
Praise for The Fraud: A Novel
“[The Fraud] offers a vast, acute panoply of London and the English countryside, and successfully locates the social controversies of an era in a handful of characters. . . . In all of her books Smith has paid attention to a mixed-up London and particularly to Willesden, where she grew up. In this novel, she is quite actively digging into London’s history, trying to understand how a person like her, with European and Jamaican ancestry, came to exist here in the first place. What forces deposited Black people on these shores? With her multicultural eye she also gives us a London that is more racially mixed than that found in other novels about the period. . . . As always, it is a pleasure to be in Zadie Smith’s mind, which, as time goes on, is becoming contiguous with London itself. Dickens may be dead, but Smith, thankfully, is alive.” —Karan Mahajan, The New York Times Book Review
“The Fraud, [Smith’s] sixth novel, is partly about an enslaved man on a Jamaican sugar plantation, and it’s a comedy: those two things at once. Few would dare; fewer could pull it off as Smith does here, mixing narrative delight with a vein of rapid, skimming satire as she sketches scenes of life in 19th-century England and the Caribbean . . . In all this multiplicity, different models of Victorian fiction are inherited and transformed . . . The Fraud is a curious combination of gloriously light, deft writing and strenuous construction . . . It slows and expands lavishly in honour of its Victorian subjects, yet its chapters are elliptical half-scenes chosen with modernist economy. Happily its eight ‘volumes’ can be bound with one spine. Here is historical fiction with all the day-lit attentiveness that Eliza hopes for: ‘stories of human beings, struggling, suffering, deluding others and themselves, being cruel to each other and kind. Usually both.’ Generous and undogmatic as ever, Smith makes room for ‘both’.” —Alexandra Harris, The Guardian
“Smith has long been fascinated by, and is expertly attuned to, the authority and status conferred on those who can wield language entertainingly or persuasively. This is the novelist’s prowess—and the politician’s and the swindler’s. . . . Over and over, The Fraud insists on the duty of the novelist to deeply imagine the other—a project that may be doomed to fail but remains worth attempting. Smith was a convincing mouthpiece for this argument in The New York Review of Books not simply because she’s a persuasive critic but because she has made a career writing novels that do this well.” —Jordan Kisner, The Atlantic
“Smith’s characteristically expansive new novel, The Fraud, works by indirection . . . Some of what The Fraud says about our own time is troubling and meant to be so. But Smith is never solemn . . . Her curiosity seems endless, she’s willing to let the past surprise her, and though the book doesn’t offer a new form of historical fiction, I would bet that it does represent a new moment in the career of Zadie Smith.” —Michael Gorra, The New York Review of Books
“The best and most poignant sections of The Fraud examine the highly prescribed space for a sharp, smart woman in a culture that has no interest in sharp, smart women, particularly a dependent one of a certain age with little money. Eliza cannot be honest about her cousin’s novels; she cannot be open about her sexuality; she cannot pursue her own interest in writing . . . As ever, Smith continually works against expectations . . . [The Fraud] excels at sleight of hand. The syncopated arrangement of these short chapters jumps back and forth in time, placing Ainsworth’s youthful popularity in contrast to his later years of panicked self-doubt. But the focus remains on the mysterious Eliza Touchet — so externally polite, so internally acute — struggling till the end of her life to divine what to believe when the human condition is essentially fraudulent.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[A] great success. Certainly it’s my favorite of this writer’s novels. Ms. Smith has always been superb at conjuring voices (in this she is more like Dickens than she might prefer), and the scenes come to life in whirlwinds of dialogue that hurl together working-class cant, Caribbean patois and Queen’s English. Though The Fraud is capacious, its chapters are short, vivid and contained…For perhaps the first time since her 2000 debut, White Teeth, Ms. Smith has allowed herself the freedom to be brilliant, without giving equal time to the dutiful rebuttals of guilt and misgiving.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Along with Smith’s signature wry wit and the beautiful originality of her sentences, The Fraud’s strength lies in how it portrays Eliza’s awakening to the realities of race in 19th-century Britain…The Fraud is absorbing, resonant and relevant.” —The Boston Globe
“[A] brilliant new entry in Smith’s catalog . . . The Fraud is not a change for Smith, but a demonstration of how expansive her talents are.” —Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“Zadie Smith is a gifted storyteller and prose stylist. And The Fraud makes a compelling case that historical fiction can lie to tell the truth.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“When [Zadie Smith] she burst onto the scene at 24 with White Teeth, her bestselling debut published in 2000, Ms Smith earned comparisons to Charles Dickens…perhaps it was only a matter of time before she would write a historical novel after all. [The Fraud] is based on a real court battle in 1873, in which a seemingly uneducated butcher from east London claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the presumed-drowned heir to a grand estate… The Fraud leaps from stuffy English parlours to Jamaican sugar plantations, where African slaves lost their names, their loves and often their lives while toiling for the British. The effect is potent, as Ms Smith—a child of a white father and Jamaican mother—considers a worse fraud than a butcher’s claim to wealth. Beneath the sweetened tea of polite society was a hellscape of inhumanity.” —The Economist
“2023 has been a remarkable year for literature for many reasons, including the long-awaited return of Zadie Smith… Based on real historical events, The Fraud is a captivating look into the fraudulent and the authentic.” —Chicago Review of Books
“Fans will find much they recognise in her tremendous new novel . . . After a while, you realise that The Fraud isn’t Smith’s first historical novel. It is her first prequel: a book that provides the pre-history of both the world and the neighbourhood that she first brought to life in White Teeth with a divorced war veteran trying, unsuccessfully, to gas himself opposite an Indian restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 1975. Just like White Teeth, The Fraud is a novel that illuminates what it is to live and to love in the 21st century.” —Stephen Bush, Financial Times
“Zadie Smith's The Fraud is a lot of things: a meticulously researched work of historical fiction, a smart narrative about the importance of truth and the shortcomings of perspective, and a tale that delves deeply into authenticity and justice . . . Smith's knack for developing full secondary characters and her talent for descriptions and witty dialogue make some parts of this novel as entertaining as the wildest fiction . . . The Fraud matters because it unearths stories that need to be told, and because it asks a lot of important questions in both the unearthing and the telling. This is a novel packed with great writing and shining passages that go from humorous to deeply philosophical.” —NPR
“It is in [Smith’s] openness to and her endless curiosity about other people, even the ones she disagrees with, that her power lies. The Fraud . . . feels free in a way Smith’s novels haven’t in a long time, as if she is once again wandering a path of her own choosing, shaped by her own unhindered desires. Think of it as an instruction manual for how to read our fellow human beings, and also how to read Zadie Smith: Always prepare for surprises, and never make up your mind.” —Laura Miller, Slate
“Elegant . . . The heart of The Fraud is flawed, charismatic Mrs. Touchet, who is so intelligent and yet not quite intelligent enough to see all the ways she fails herself.” —Constance Grady, Vox
“Zadie Smith’s funny, almost flawless new novel examines identity, the notion of truth and 19th century England and Jamaica in flux. . . . Smith presents a coruscating picture of twin societies in flux, the ways in which 19th-century England and Jamaica were ‘two sides of the same problem, profoundly intertwined,’ joined at the hip by Andrew Bogle’s ‘secret word’: slavery.” —The Observer
“Smartly rendered, true to its own time while also deeply reflective of ours, it’s a terrific novel, perhaps Smith’s finest . . . The Fraud is a novel of sublime empathy, in which the author’s voice and perspective bestow a contemporary edge. From the Claimant and his supporters to Ainsworth and Mrs. Touchet, Smith understands how much we need one another, and the consolations of narrative, true and false.” —4Columns
“Zadie Smith has done what she never wished to do: she wrote a historical novel. Thankfully for her, and for us, she managed to take this form and spin it into something entirely new, a feat only Smith could undertake . . . It’s an extremely smart and involved novel that asks all the right questions about morality and nuance. I would describe The Fraud as I would describe life: it’s complicated, deep, ridiculous, scary, and funny. It took a genius to write it, and cements Zadie Smith as the British novelist of our time.” —Julia Hass, Literary Hub
“Smith deftly weaves rich source material, including trial transcripts, into a lively though never straightforward narrative. . . . In a brilliant move, The Fraud is told largely from the close third-person viewpoint of Eliza Touchet, an uncommonly strong, sharp-tongued observer…What makes Smith’s latest novel so compelling is the way Eliza grapples not just with the suggestibility of most people. . . but also with her own biases and limitations.” —Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
“Employing nimble dialogue and sly humor, Smith moves The Fraud along swiftly and mysteriously, challenging you to keep up with competing plot lines. One of these concerns the Tichborne affair — the wild, real-life court case in which a gruff butcher claimed to be a long lost nobleman and heir to a sizable fortune. Smith’s retelling of this “trial of the century” alone is worth the price of admission for The Fraud, though I could have spent an entire novel in the company of prosaic novelist William Ainsworth and Eliza Touchet, his witty abolitionist housekeeper, muse, lover, and, of course, cousin.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Zadie Smith’s first foray into historical fiction is both splendidly modern and authentically old. . . Smith, in the way of a Victorian stereoscope, ties together bountiful images, personalities and dramas into a single dazzling, three-dimensional picture. The Fraud is the genuine article.” —The Independent
“Pithy, richly detailed. . . Smith’s sixth novel explores themes of race, class, power and loss. . . in many ways, The Fraud has much in common with Smith’s contemporary novels in its deft portrayal of metropolitan society and the entangled lives within. . . as this novel shows, there is no better guide to people and their bottomlessness than Smith herself.” —The i
“An ambitious novel. . . . I often admired it very much.” —The Times (UK)
“[Smith’s] first foray into historical fiction will garner fresh admirers with its detailed 19th-century narrative, while also satisfying fans who have long enjoyed her on-target observations and richly drawn characters. Witty and incisive . . . the novel’s firm grounding in the past offers a rich reflection of the present—and the ways race and class impact our understanding of ourselves and our complicated history.” —BookPage
“What does it take to uncover a fraud or claim one’s fate? Inspired by a real trial in Victorian England, Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, brilliantly ‘written in spite of her hesitations,’ crackles with details and characters that bring to life issues of power, race, and the notion of authenticity.” —Boston Globe, “Here are 20 books we’re excited to read this fall”
“An English author with a tin ear and an involute sexual past pens a ‘Jamaican novel’ as a newsy trial unfurls, a once-enslaved man the key witness, in Zadie Smith’s Victorian historical novel par excellence.” —Vanity Fair, “The Best New Books, From Novels to Memoirs”
“Mesmerizing . . . Smith weaves Eliza’s shrewd and entertaining recollections of her life, a somber account of Bogle’s ancestry and past, brief excerpts from Ainsworth’s books, and historic trial transcripts into a seamless and stimulating mix, made all the more lively by her juxtaposing of imagination with first-and secondhand accounts and facts. The result is a triumph of historical fiction.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Smith, in her most commanding novel to date, dramatizes with all-too relevant insights crucial questions of veracity and mendacity, privilege and tyranny, survival and self, trust and betrayal . . . Smith is always a must-read, and this spectacularly entertaining and resonant historical novel will have enormous appeal.” —Booklist (starred review)
“The cultural and literary life of Victorian England erupts vibrantly from each page of this extraordinary novel . . . Smith wrestles contemporary themes surrounding women’s independence, racism, and class disparity from centuries-old events . . . Readers of Geraldine Brooks or Hilary Mantel will be enthralled.” —Library Journal (starred review)